Friday, August 18, 2017

Iowa State Fair Time

The Iowa State Fair is legendary. At least two (maybe three) movies have been made about it. There are many traditions, news items, and foibles. In most years the Fair attracts a million visitors, give or take a few, for its delightful mixture of friendship, conviviality, creativity, exceptional skills, and odd food on a stick. The attractions are also a delight: the famous butter cow (yes sculpted life-size from butter in a special refrigerated showcase), the Big Boar, the Big Bull (each having topped the scales in its show division), the Avenue of Breeds and all of that food.This year has been no different except that I've visited every day this week to observe and sketch. Here are some of the results.

There is a big barn-like structure on a hill overlooking the Fair called Pioneer Hall. Inside, during fair time there is a flea market where vendors sell all sorts of antique tchochkes and where old time crafts are demonstrated. There is a blacksmith who comes every year and fires up a forge built into the wall of the building. Next to him is a print shop that prints up handbills and the like. During the ten days of the Fair, the smith makes various kinds of wrought-iron items for sale and demonstrates how certain effects are achieved, while casually using red-hot metal. The second morning of the Fair I got to Pioneer Hall early because it's easier to sketch when there are fewer distractions, and the crowds can be dense later in the day. Luckily the blacksmith was already set up and the forge hot even before his aisle of the building was open. I managed a watercolor portrait, which he was kind enough to sign, across the bib. His glasses reflected the sun coming in from the left, and the fire lit the underside of his nose.





The fairgrounds have many permanent buildings--the Grandstand, the Show Arena, the Agriculture Building, and so on. This is a view of the Show Arena, next to a group of huge barns that house various kinds of farm animals--Cattle, Swine, Sheep, Horses. The day I was there, there was a show of dairy cattle in the ring by the 4H kids, solemnly leading Jersey heifers around the ring. After the show I wandered toward a lineup of pioneering buildings dating from the 19th and early 20th century, all moved here from their original communities. There is a General Store, a Pharmacy, Barber Shop, and a Telephone Building. Up the hill a bit farther is a one-room schoolhouse and a pioneer church. I spent an hour or so sitting under a shade tree sketching the Pharmacy and General Store. This is ink and watercolor, a full page in my 7x10 sketchbook.

One of the great things about the State Fair is how much is happening. There are silly events and fascinating ones. There are contests and exhibitions. Pioneer Hall, at the top of the hill, hosts all kinds of these, including everything from turkey calling to husband calling. And the Hall features free entertainment--often country music. It's a great spot for a cool drink and some country fiddlin'. I sat one morning and watched a duo of fellows play guitar and sing everything from Bob Dylan to Johnny Cash, with real style. It took about half an hour to sketch one of them. I didn't have a chance to draw his partner before they finished, and I ambled back down the hill to check out the next unusual event.

Perhaps the most enjoyable events for me are the competitions to be the biggest-the largest pumpkin, for
example, and the Big Bull and the Big Boar. The largest pumpkin this year weighed in at an astonishing 758 pounds. But the largest boar, known officially as the Big Boar was a giant at nearly 1200 pounds. But both the boar and the squash were overshadowed by the Big Bull who made almost 2600 pounds of beef on the hoof. Wow. I had a bit of time to sketch the Big Boar, who was miraculously standing up. Most of the time swine lie quietly, staying cool. But I caught the boar at feeding time. He was surprisingly gentle it seemed, and nuzzled up to his owner, who was just outside the enclosure.

It looks as if I'll make at least one more visit to the Fair before it closes this Sunday, so I'll probably post a few more sketches in the coming days....

Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Windowsill Works Once More

Over the past couple of years I've resurrected some old windowsill works that I'd forgotten about and I've painted a few more in casein. Here are some of them.

This is casein, 4x6 on panel. I did it over an old, failed metalpoint drawing. I think it's a small silver creamer or perhaps a vessel to pour chocolate. In any event, it's a very shiny thing with a yellow metal interior and a handle on one side. I posed it near my studio window on a wrinkled red cloth then did my best to capture the essence, not necessarily the exact reality of the silver. As often happens, I let this one set overnight and adjusted the next morning for the final image.

This is a very quick study of a bud vase painted with a limited casein palette. Like the rest of these, it's 4x6 and was painted in less than an hour. When I paint glass, I try to lay in the background, then the far glass (if it's transparent), then the near glass, then any sheen (as on the shoulder of this bud vase), and last any highlights. This was posed on the windowsill of the studio too, but I invented the dark pillar behind it, for better value contrast.

I think that in both of these I was simply more interested in the ellipses and the reflections than doing a painting of the entire object.


Here's an oil on panel. For this and a series of similar studies, I filled differently shaped
bottles with transparent colored water. The goal was to study the transparency of the bottles and the transmission of color, using oil paint. This looks a little bit like an overturned ink bottle, seems to me.





Last, this is an oil study done in the same small format on a hardboard panel. It's an antique glass butter dish. This was enjoyable because of the limited palette and the need for accurate drawing. The blurring of the butter outlines made it even more fun.







Doing small works like these is useful because they can be completed fairly quickly. Further, because I don't have much time invested, if the image isn't useful I can always sand off the panel and re-use it.
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Previous posts on this topic
Windowsill Works
Windowsill Works 2
Windowsill Works 3
Windowsill Works 4
Windowsill Works Too

Friday, August 11, 2017

Oil Painting Mediums

Medium in art parlance is a really slippery word. You can talk about various media (note the plural) and most commonly the discussion is about a kind of painting or drawing material--watercolor, charcoal, pastel, acrylic, oil, and so on. In the more general sense though medium could mean the method of communication, such as spoken or written words or film or tv broadcasts. But when most oil painters mention mediums they mean something added to their paint to alter it in some way.

Many beginning painters ask about mediums for oil painting. What are they, which should I use, and so on. Mediums in oil painting can be used to improve handling, allow thicker or thinner application of paint, add crispness to strokes, change appearance, and more. In the past a master would have imparted this information to an apprentice along with his recipes for making the materials needed. The apprentice spent years assimilating and practicing, most eventually passing the torch to a new generation. Today the best one can do, absent an atelier or school, is to scour the Internet for information. Unfortunately of course, that means finding a way to separate good information from less useful. This post is intended to give the reader my own thoughts and experience with oil painting mediums. Others may give a different viewpoint.

There is a myth that recipes and methods owned by the masters of the past were lost, but more likely their history is similar to nearly everything in life--that is information about oil painting has faded to near-obscurity (in certain cases) and is now being explored with more interest. During the latter part of the 20th century there seems to have been less discussion and use of mediums but now their usage may be on the upswing. Judicious use of mediums can help a painter-craftsman to add visual interest and intellectual luster to oil paintings. You can make your brushstrokes more or less obvious, for example. A medium that levels the paint strokes and dries slowly will look glossy when dry; a medium containing a thickener can give a soft, matte finish (wax medium) and preserve brush marks.

So do we need to use mediums in our paintings? The answer depends on the individual, so far as I can see. Many painters add nothing to their tube paint; others add only solvent or only linseed oil or linseed oil thinned with mineral spirits or turpentine. The results in such work are good and longevity seems likely. In effect the painter often varies the oil to thinner ratio so that top layers have a bit more oil (fat over lean). In contrast, some painters mix medium into tube paint before using; some dip the brush into medium first then into paint (or vice versa) before laying in each stroke. But mediums are certainly not required. When using a medium of any sort, probably the most important caution is to use the material sparingly. There was a hair product years ago with the slogan, "A little dab'll do ya," which is a great motto for the use of mediums too. The minimum amount needed to achieve the desired effect is all one should use; using too much guarantees problems. As a rule of thumb, the total medium added should be less than ten percent of the paint volume--and much less most of the time.

Advertisement for commercial medium
A general medium that's recommended quite often contains a mix of linseed oil of one kind or another, dammar resin (or another resin), and thinner. There are quite a few similar recipes, all of which result in a more or less thin liquid--there isn't much oil or resin in comparison to the amount of thinner used. In my own hands at least, this medium provides little advantage beyond a capacity to thin tube paint, so why the need for oil or resin.

Other mediums include various kinds of altered linseed oil, each of which some artists swear by. Basic linseed oil can be treated in various ways, including sun-thickening or sun-bleaching, washing the oil, and heating it, among others. A special kind of heated linseed oil is known as stand oil. Stand oil is linseed oil that has been super-heated to more than 300 degrees C in a vacuum, allowing the oil to polymerize somewhat; it becomes quite thick. Stand oil and solvent make a very pleasant general medium. Sun-thickened oils are similarly thick and are used in similar ways. Another drying oil could be substituted for linseed, notably walnut oil. So mediums come in all kinds of recipes. Many companies market "oil painting medium," most of which likely contain linseed oil, a small amount of a resin, and solvent.

Here are three recipes that use the same ingredients in different combinations and proportions (odorless mineral spirits can be substituted for turpentine):

Oil-Resin-Thinner Recipes
                          1. Fast drying, lean mix
                              6 parts gum spirits of turpentine
                              2 parts damar varnish (5# cut)
                              1 part sun-thickened linseed oil

                          2. Fast dry time, lean mix
                              5 parts gum spirits of turpentine
                              1 part damar varnish
                              1 part stand oil
                              1 drop per oz. of cobalt linoleate dryer

                          3. Fast dry time, medium mix
                              6 parts gum spirits of turpentine
                              2 parts linseed oil
                              1 part damar varnish


Note that the author has only tried the basic turpentine, dammar and linseed oil version. The addition of cobalt drier is completely unknown to me. This recipe in all of its incarnations can be made in the studio or purchased in various commercial forms.

One medium that interest many has come in for enormous criticism is megilp (there are other spellings),or Maroger medium. There is a lot of confusing information and controversy available online about this particular concoction as well. "Discovered" and popularized by Jacques Maroger (1884–1962) an oil painter, teacher, and former director the laboratory at the Louvre, the medium is roundly derided by some and routinely used by others. Maroger medium has actually been known under various names since the heyday of Venetian and Dutch painting. Like other mediums recipes Maroger medium (or megilp) come in different proportions. But regardless, Maroger medium always contains leaded oil (also known as "black oil") and mastic varnish. The leaded oil may be cooked--heated--for various time periods, then combined with a highly-saturated mastic varnish (mastic resin and solvent). The result gels but liquifies when manipulated. This medium (and others too) is applied as a very thin layer (called a "couch") which makes the surface accept paint more smoothly. The colors appear brighter, too.  Another way painters use the medium is by dipping the tip of the brush into it before adding paint.

Advertisement for black oil, note the color of brushed-out oil
Those who praise Maroger medium say that it provides superior handling, rapid drying (a result of the lead component), and a nice gloss. Critics of Maroger medium often make absolutist statements such as "never use it" accompanied with accounts of cracking or darkening or both. Yet it seems to me that it's difficult to make blanket statements because Maroger medium isn't a single entity but a group of differing recipes that are assembled and "cooked" in differing ways. They were then used in differing amounts in paint, mixed in different ways. Some probably used a couch; many likely didn't. There is simply an enormous variability when discussing this or any other medium. For example, how much lead is dissolved in the oil and how long should you heat it and at what temperature? There are recipes but none is iron-clad. Incidentally, you can make your own or buy Maroger medium online that is anything but black; in fact it's a rather dark amber. The problem with evaluations of Maroger, then, is that historically at least it was made using different combinations and cooked in various ways. The comparison of paintings made using a medium made so many different ways may be inconclusive.

There are other mediums available, notably alkyd-based, but I've no experience with alkyd paint or mediums.

So in summary, here is my strategy in using mediums:
  • Mediums aren't required. Use them to improve handling and appearance.
  • Mediums must be used sparingly. Doing otherwise is courting disaster.
  • Simple is better: linseed oil alone, thinned, is quite serviceable.
  • Mix into the paint piles or use from a cup by dipping.
  • Consider using a very thin couch of linseed oil. It makes painting a pleasure.
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Other posts regarding materials:
Pigment
Solvents
Paint Basics

Tuesday, August 08, 2017

Studio 405 Again

More on Studio 405. These past few days have been moving days, setting up work tables, easels, storage, desk and chair, drawing table and all the electrical and mechanical "stuff" that goes into an art studio. The studio is light-filled and spacious, the walls reflecting a lot of the northeast light. Here are a couple of pictures of the space, probably as neatly organized as it will ever be. 

The floor is smoothed concrete, the pattern probably represented where an elevated floor was placed, since the space was previously occupied by a telephone company's mainframe computers and other equipment. It looks a little like a kind of patterned effect, but it seems accidental. This image is from the windows toward the door. A couple of portable panels have the door blocked.

This image is from the doorway toward the windows, showing worktables and an old carpet put down to save my feet from standing on the hard floor constantly. My drawing setup is to the left. A careful look at the walls shows one of the winter paintings posted last week during a really sizzling few days.

As the studio evolves, there will be more to post, particularly when teaching starts.

Saturday, August 05, 2017

Media Madness

Someone commented to me not long ago about admiring an ability to work in several different mediums. As those who read here know, I've posted watercolor, casein, graphite, digital, oil and metalpoint images at different times. My primary medium is still oil, but experimenting with other media has been both interesting and useful.

In my opinion, drawing and painting can be accomplished with many different media and tools and if you study diligently, the overlap among the media can be very helpful. Watercolor's transparency gives spark and luminosity; oil paint when used in certain ways seems to glow; casein is quick and opaque and handles similar to oils; gouache is like casein in many ways; digital methods of drawing and painting can emulate all of the other media but depends significantly on the tools chosen and the ability of the artist (at least in my case).

Long ago online there was a series of posts wherein the artist tried making images of the same subject in as many different media as possible. It seemed an impossible task, but when one simply relaxes and realizes that the process and the learning are the purpose, rather than making pictures for sale, it becomes easier.

This week I decided to give the idea a try. Accordingly, made four images of coneflowers behind my home studio. The first was yesterday, a 4x6 watercolor done in an hour or so. This morning I did three more paintings, each the same size as the first, but this time in casein, oil, and pixels. Here they are:

The first is a digital sketch done on my iPad Pro using a free sketch program, Adobe Sketch and the Apple Pencil. Although the image is recognizable and the colors fairly accurate, one of the problems with doing this sort of work digitally is whether the program allows the kind of nuance of mark-making that you can get when using other tools. With paint, graphite, charcoal, etc. an artist can vary marks more easily, at least during the learning phase. In my eyes, this image is at least partially successful in evoking the summer garden.










To the right is a "real world" painting of the same subject, although a bit different grouping. This is casein on panel, 4x6. The image photographed well because of the matte finish of this kind of paint. The opacity and quick drying of casein allowed me to lay strokes over one another fairly quickly. If you're too picky in the beginning, you can use a full-bodied opaque stroke or two to cover the fuss and loosen the work.


The next is oil, 4x6 on panel, done alla prima with added Maroger medium. The advantage of that medium is that with care you can lay wet strokes over wet strokes without seriously disturbing the first ones, if you're gentle. Allowing the first strokes to set for a few minutes before overlaying helps that process a bit. Here I did the background first then let the paint layer set up a bit before fusing edges and softening things with a sable blender. I reserved the lighter parts of the panel and then placed the petal colors in varying chroma, value and hues, trying to make my strokes crisp and true without fussing. The edges of the central seed heads are soft and sharp depending on the passage. I like the luminous effect of oil.







Finally this is the watercolor that started the experiment. This was done on cold press 140 lb paper measuring 4x6. I laid the background greens in various chromas and values reserving white for the petals and central seeds. Watercolor is transparent, so the colors seem to glow. It was fun to overlay the pinks, making petal edges indistinct.














So what is the result of this media madness? Well, seems to me that the subject can be served by any of these four mediums. Watercolor is cheap, fast, simple and easy to carry. Casein can be just as easy, but the paint dries so fast a small covered palette with a soaked sponge or paper towel inside could facilitate portable sketching. Certainly casein is remarkably forgiving and allows thick and opaque passages that watercolor can't accommodate. If oil paint is a medium of choice, seems to me that using some kind of medium--even an alkyd resin like Liquin--would make portable painting a lot easier. The Maroger medium I used dries very fast (for oil). Last, I think digital images can be very useful as source material and for sketching but until the current tablets and pressure-sensitive styli were available, outdoor and portable digital sketching weren't so feasible. Now it seems to me that the sky may be the limit.

Friday, August 04, 2017

Ramon Casas i Carbo

Ramon Casas i Carbo, "Self Portrait," 1908
Not long ago I ran across a reference to Ramon Casas (1866-1932) online, which drew me into further wanderings in the labyrinth of the 'Net. Mr. Casas was a Catalan painter whose mature style is now considered the leading edge of the Modernist movement. He was famous in his own lifetime but has become more obscure in the past century or so. Last year was the 150th anniversary of his birth, which is being commemorated by an enormous retrospective which alas is only traveling in Spain. Mr. Casas was an exceptional painter whose work is not so well known as it should be.

Mr. Casas was born in Barcelona in 1866 to a wealthy family and by his teens was already an accomplished painter. His family wealth must have allowed him considerable freedom, so that he traveled to Paris while still in his teens to study art. He was able to travel to other locales during the warm months, particularly Madrid, always returning to Paris in fall. During his times in the city and yet in his teens, Mr. Casas studied at the Carolus Duran Academy. At age 18 he exhibited a self portrait dressed as a flamenco dancer in a Paris exhibition, and he continued to study, paint and exhibit there. By the early 1890s, he and his friend Santiago Rusinol (a Catalan artist as well) lived at the well-known Montmarte drinking establishment, Moulin de la Galette. He was involved in the bar Els Quatre Gats in partnership with several of his friends. The bar in Barcelona, patterned after Le Chat Noir in Paris, was the watering hole for modernistas and hosted art exhibitions as well. They also published a magazine for which Casas made substantial contributions. Later in the decade he settled mostly in Barcelona, returning to Paris for exhibitions. During that period, he became very successful and famous, exhibiting in numerous places in Europe, including Berlin, and in the United States. And although he was wealthy himself Mr. Casas attracted an American patron, Charles Deering (a strong amateur painter himself) who acquired a number of his works. Around this time he met a
Ramon Casas, "La Sargantain" (Julia Peraire) ca1907
much younger woman named Julia Peraire, who became his model and mistress; he would eventually marry her in 1922. During the early 20th century Mr. Casas was considered a leader in the new modern (and Modern) art. Yet somehow, in the last two decades of his life his fame lessened and his reputation began to fade. His work trended toward the academic, and although he is well-known in his home city he seems almost unknown in the rest of Europe or the United States.

Now, at the 150th anniversary of his birth, an extensive exhibition of his work is travelling in Spain, having been in Barcelona and Madrid and now in Palma. The catalog of the exhibition is available online, but there is no English translation. But the illustrations are lavish and in color. Mr. Casas knew and influenced (and was influenced in turn) by many of his contemporaries--John Singer Sargent, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Sorolla, Zorn, and even Picasso (who was considerably younger). The exhibition catalog is in Spanish, so if you speak the language, you're set.

Mr. Casas painted many different subjects, including portraits, landscape, history, and figures. Like Lautrec, he designed posters and magazine covers too.

Here are few more of his works, from the catalog.

"Baile en el Moulin de la Galette," 1891Add caption
An interior of the Moulin de la Galette, the famous drinking spot in Montmarte where Ramon Casas lived with his friend Rusinol. During these years Montmarte was still a village outside Paris, considered rural and picturesque. The village was particularly known for its windmills.














"Casas & Romeu on a Tandem," 1897
This is an oil illustration for the cover of the Quatre Gats magazine, showing Casas himself (with the pipe) and Romeu, one of his partners in the bar, on a tandem bicycle. Like other modernistas, he painted flat areas of color and simplified his image.




"Sombras" for Quatre Gats, chromolithograph, 1897
This is a graphic work by Mr. Casas for Quatre Gats. This chromolithograph is clearly in the mode as Lautrec and modernism, following the craze for Japanese prints that had gripped the art world in the previous decade.








"La Carga, or Barcelona 1902" oil on canvas, ca 1900
This enormous history painting (near life size) shows the Spanish Guardia Civil dispersing a crowd in Barcelona during a general strike that happened in 1902. Mr. Casas was awarded first prize for this work at the General Exposition in Madrid. It is now in the Reina Sofia Museum in Madrid.




"Despues del baile o Joven decadente," oil on canvas 1899


Mr. Casas was also an adept figurative artist. During the late 1890s he produced a series of full-length portrait drawings in a modernist style that were widely admired. But his oil paintings were equally prized. Here he paints his model as a decadent youth (Joven decadente in Spanish) who is exhausted by dancing. This painting is in the Museum of Montserrat, in Catalonia.






It's too bad that Ramon Casas has mostly faded from memory. Perhaps one day an exhibition of his work will make its way to the United States. The least we can hope for is an English language publication.

Tuesday, August 01, 2017

Wishing for Winter?

When the weather becomes oppressive--hot, humid days in summer or conversely dim and frigid winter afternoons--it can occasionally be helpful to remember the opposite season. Most of July has been unusually hot for Des Moines, with brutal, steamy humidity levels that can
"City Snow," oil on canvas, 20x26
fog your sunglasses. Walking outside in July was like walking into a wall. The heat kept a lot of people indoors, and it certainly made me long for the crisp days of fall and the briskness of early winter. So I began to think about that kind of weather as I looked through old image files. .

"Winter, Union Square," oil on panel, 9x12
Sorting images, I ran across a couple of streetscapes of winter. While I'm not a fan of driving snow, looking at "Winter, Union Square" was a welcome breath of cold air during the summer inferno. The painting sold a number of years ago, but the impact remains, for me.

The other, "City Snow," is in my studio collection and has been rarely shown. This is a snowy sidewalk in winter, the sun breaking through after the storm. This one makes me think of those brief, wet snows that melt and refreeze into icy sidewalks and streets. Hard to image with the daily temperature over ninety, but in our part of the world, snow is certain to come, but thinking of colder weather is mental air conditioning.